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'2012' marked a pinnacle of sorts for the natural disaster movie
sub-genre, containing in a single picture earthquakes, volcanic
eruptions and tsunamis occurring across various cities at the same
time. That probably explains why there hasn't been a big-budget studio
movie to that effect since then till now, and also why this latest in a
while feels the constant need to up the ante. Indeed, 'San Andreas'
wears its ambition of being the biggest earthquake movie to date on its
sleeve, but unless you haven't gotten your fix of such VFX-enhanced
natural catastrophes, you probably will be left nonplussed.
For the geographically challenged, the title refers to the nearly 800-mile fault line that runs through California. As seismologist Lawrence Hayes (a very grave-looking Paul Giamatti) intones at the beginning, it has been predicted that a big one will happen every 150 years, and we are already almost 100 years into the current interval. And so, as far as the science goes in this movie, a magnitude-7.1 along a previously unknown fault near the Hoover Dam will trigger a "seismic swarm" along the titular San Andreas fault, precipitating a magnitude-9.1 in Southern California and another even more powerful magnitude-9.6 further up north in San Francisco (for context, the 1960 magnitude-9.5 quake off Chile is the current world record holder).
Amidst the toppling buildings, the human tale that emerges is one of a LAFD helicopter pilot Ray (Dwayne Johnson) who flies into downtown Los Angeles to rescue his ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and then, together with Emma, into the heart of San Francisco to rescue their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Instead of a multi-character narrative, veteran TV writer Carlton Cuse's screenplay focuses pretty much on Ray's solo rescue mission, albeit with some tangential cutaways to see Emma's cowardly boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd) get his comeuppance for abandoning Blake earlier on in an underground car park. Fortunately for Emma, a dashing Brit geek named Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) whom she just meets steps up to free her, and with the latter's younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson), the trio travel together to find higher ground to rendezvous with her parents.
It's a clichéd setup no doubt, and the denouement is to be expected, but Ray's race-against-time to get to his daughter turns out surprisingly affecting. Instead of establishing every little detail upfront, Cuse's script keeps us wondering just what led to Ray's estrangement from his family, which leads to a poignant moment between Ray and Emma at the halfway mark. And instead of reprising another macho action hero role, Dwayne Johnson stays admirably grounded in the role of a father who is driven by equal parts love and grief to make sure that his child is safe. It is probably Johnson's most nuanced performance, and he gets reliable support from Gugino in their third on-screen collaboration to date.
Leaving Johnson to do the emotional heavy-lifting, Brad Peyton instead concentrates on choreographing the mayhem around him. No stranger to VFX-heavy setpieces, Peyton tops his previous work in 'Cats and Dogs 2' and 'Journey 2: The Mysterious Island' with some truly jaw-dropping visual spectacle. From the fracturing of the Hoover Dam just ten minutes into the film, Peyton moves on to design the destruction of the entire Los Angeles skyline before moving on to extend the same devastation to the whole San Francisco Bay Area. It is one thing to see skyscrapers like the US Bank Tower and the Citigroup Centre falling and quite another to witness a giant tsunami send a container tanker smack into the Golden Gate Bridge, and let's just say this is probably as real as it gets next to it happening for real.
Whether it was intended at the start, the choice to cast Ray as a helicopter pilot turns out to be quite the inspired one. With generous help from his cinematographer Steve Yedlin, Peyton toggles between three different perspectives from which to let his audience appreciate the scale of the disaster. There is Emma's point-of-view from someone on the ground, Ray's point-of-view from in between the toppling buildings as he tries to retrieve Emma from mid-air, and finally an even more birds-eye point-of-view of the whole earth shaking, buckling, broken, on fire, and inundated with water. The combination of these distinct points-of-view should keep audiences looking for spectacle thoroughly engaged, especially those who can't quite care more about the unfolding human drama.
And yet, even though it does follow disaster-movie formula to a fault (pun intended), there is no shaking off that feeling of 'been there done that'. Yes, like we said at the start, there isn't much more any filmmaker can do to top the Armageddon wrought by Roland Emmerich in '2012', and to be sure, Peyton doesn't do that. That said, if you're looking for an earnest reminder just how unpredictable and cataclysmic Mother Nature can be, then you'll find no fault with 'San Andreas'. It doesn't get too sappy or too melodramatic, and even contains some useful PSA tips on just what to do if and when you're caught in one. It's a Rock-solid disaster movie, we'll give you that.
Because the only thing we knew before going into 'Imprisoned: Survival
Guide for Rich and Prodigal' was that the creative team of '3D Sex and
Zen' and 'Due West' were behind it, we went in with just about the
lowest of expectations. No offence to its lead actors Gregory Wong and
Justin Cheung or its director Christopher Sun, but neither of those
films were anything more than trashy, so you can't quite blame us for
thinking the same of their prison comedy-drama. True enough, their
latest under producer Stephen Shiu Jr's China 3D Entertainment amounts
to little more than trash, but at least it is entertaining while it
Scripted by Sun, Mark Wu (of the trashy 'Lan Kwai Fong' franchise) and Shum Shek Yin, it portrays prison life from the perspective of a greenhorn named Nelson (Gregory Wong), who is sentenced to a year and a half after he runs over an elderly woman while drunk driving. Nelson isn't just some random twenty-something year-old, but a pampered '富二代'whose mother (Candice Yu) dotes him with all the cash that he wants and the most costly defense lawyer that money can buy, so this is also really his coming-of-age story much as how National Service is for our Ah Boys to Men.
As we already know from Ringo Lam's classic 'Prison on Fire' and its sequel, there is a whole microcosm behind prison walls, and for the benefit of us neophytes, Nelson gives us the full rundown just how it works. Beginning with the full body scan which used to be performed by hand but is now done by X-ray (though that machine has to break down just as Nelson steps through it), Nelson greets with wide-eyed horror the initiation for a fellow new inmate charged (though acquitted) of rape, sieving through soiled underpants while on laundry duty, and the terrible meals served by an unsympathetic cook (Lam Suet). Naturally, there is some degree of exaggeration in the 'culture shock' Nelson experiences, but hey Sun isn't exactly aiming for authenticity here.
Instead of cash, cigarettes are the currency in prison, and a fair bit of the first half is spent detailing just how privileges are bought and bartered with cigarettes. It is also through this trade that Nelson gets acquainted with his cell leader (and we don't mean this in a religious context) Seatto (Wong Kwong Leung) and the latter's trusty right-hand man Coyote (Philip Keung). It is also through that trade that he finds a buddy in Wu (Babyjohn Choi), a meek and subservient cellmate who walks with a limp and is often ridiculed by everyone else with the derogatory nickname 'Cockroach'. And so, even though it isn't like before, Nelson settles in rather comfortably within this world with its own set of rules and operatives.
That balance is however disrupted with the incarceration of Jack (Cheung), another '富二代'who is not just pampered but bastardly. A prologue establishes the enmity between them after Nelson 'f**ks' Jack's girlfriend at a party in the latter's house. Unlike Nelson however, Jack's triad connections on the outside his uncle is played by no less than Ng Chi-hung help him secure 'bodyguards' on the inside, so that even behind bars, he gets to be an arrogant tyrant. Their mutual conflict however threatens to disrupt the entire social order of the place, but it is also through this baptism of fire that Nelson finds a father figure in Uncle Dat (Liu Kai Chi) and realises the folly of his past wilful hedonistic ways.
It is as predictable as it gets yes, and quite frankly, not as poignant as it makes itself out to be. In the first instance, it is hard to sympathetic with a caddish man-child who still lives off his mother and loses his girlfriend after mixing up the two letters he had asked a fellow cellmate to write for her and his other plaything, so we aren't quite taken when he finally has a change of heart. Indeed, it is telling when we end up feeling much more for Uncle Dat when he relates just why he ended up in prison than we ever do at any point for Nelson. Truth be told, while this is Nelson's story of imprisonment, it is his fellow prison mates who steal the show.
Besides Liu, Sun has assembled a veritable cast of veterans to join Gregory Wong. Those who recall 'Prison on Fire' will surely recognise Wong Kwong Leung as well as the recently deceased William Ho Ka-Kui, the latter in a bit role as a lackey whom Jack's uncle asks to look after his nephew in prison. Other notable faces include Ken Lo Wai-Kwong as a prison warden, Elvis Tsui as his supervisor, Vincent Wan and Tony Ho as inmates tasked to insert ball bearings up Nelson's penis after he loses a bet with Jack, and Yuen Qiu as a politician who pays a surprise visit to the prison but is subsequently humiliated by one of the inmates.
Thanks to the supporting cast of notables, 'Imprisoned' feels like a sequel of sorts to 'Prison on Fire', though a much poorer cousin of course. In spirit, it is a nice throwback to the prison dramas of the 80s and 90s, notwithstanding that Gregory Wong is no Chow Yun- Fat. And while it never presents itself anywhere near as compelling, there is still trashy fun to be had inside this microcosm of prison life, which also moves at a brisk clip despite its almost two-hour runtime. Like we said at the start, we weren't expecting much to begin with, and perhaps that's key to appreciating the cruder pleasures that 'Imprisoned' affords. It won't be a classic anytime soon, but by giving a reverential nod to the classic Ringo Lam film right at the start, it's got its heart in the right place.
Very little has been said by its creators about 'Tomorrowland', so you
can't quite blame us for feeling skeptical about this amusement- park
adaptation. After all, pretty much all we know is that it has something
to do with a teenage girl named Casey (Britt Robertson) who comes into
possession of a magic pin capable of transporting her into the titular
metropolis, almost just as soon finds herself being chased by a couple
of 'men in black', and is saved (reluctantly) by a grumpy scientist
played by George Clooney who has a rocket attached to his second- floor
bathroom tub. But as we've come to realise, there is a good reason for
all that secrecy; indeed, if there's one thing we will say now that we
have been there and back, it is that the thrill is in the journey of
Framing the narrative that follows is Clooney's curmudgeon inventor Frank Walker, who tussles with an off-camera female voice at the start over how to explain the context for our benefit. When he finally gets started, we find ourselves being acquainted with Frank when he was a young boy (Thomas Robinson), who brings his first big invention to the 1964 New York World's Fair. A retrofitted Electrolux vacuum cleaner that he intends as a jet pack, the contraception is scoffed at by a dismissive Hugh Laurie, but greeted with admiration by an enigmatic wise-beyond-her-years young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy). Athena invites Frank to follow her without telling him where she is headed, but after a brief ride through a wink-wink attraction called 'It's A Small World', Frank ends up making his first trip to the gleaming city of the future, or to be more accurate, a city situated on a whole different plane.
Fast-forward many years later, and we are in Cape Canaveral, Fla, where we meet Casey for the first time. The daughter of a NASA engineer (Tim McGraw), Casey sabotages the imminent demolition of a NASA rocket launch site in hopes of keeping the space programme going. Her latest attempt gets her caught, and it is upon being bailed out that she first finds the small pin with a 'T' emblazoned on it. Her initial shock and disbelief aside, Casey is fascinated by the shiny skyscrapers at the end of the golden wheat fields and heads right towards them to find swooping highways, crystal spires, airborne automobiles, and spectacular multi-level cylinder-like swimming pools that allow you to plunge one into another. It's spectacular all right, and we are invited to share Casey's awe in a single extended tracking shot that follows her monorail ride through the futuristic city.
Alas, the future which Casey glimpsed is already in the past, and as she soon learns from she-who-gifted-the-pin Athena, the Tomorrowland of today is a hollowed-out mausoleum of glass towers. This is also where we stop, and leave the rest for you to find out layer by layer. Why was Frank and Athena booted out of Tomorrowland? What is that invention Athena talks about which should never have been invented? How is this tied to Casey, or for that matter, the fate of the present world as she knows it? TV's Lost creator Damon Lindelof is one of the two screenwriters here, so be warned that his story does keep its cards very close to its chest, revealing just enough at each turn to sustain your intrigue. And yes, there's no denying that Lindelof, who co- wrote the script with director Brad Bird, has woven an engrossing mystery about the intertwining fates of three distinct characters that are surprisingly well-defined next to one another.
Like we said earlier, the thrill is in the journey of discovering; and sure enough, what we eventually find is somehow not quite as exciting or groundbreaking as one may come to anticipate. To reveal the destination would inevitably spoil the trip itself, but suffice to say that Bird tries to make a statement about the future that pop culture seems all too happy to sell us these days and ends with a call to action. Yes, many commentators have already pointed out the film's message on how inaction and nonchalance leads to a self- fulfilling prophecy of doom and destruction, and notwithstanding Bird's noble intentions at using a big-budget studio movie to put across an earnest plea for imagination, hope and collective will, let us warn those who don't like to be lectured that it does get extremely preachy right before it ends.
That however proves to be the lesser of its faults. Saddled with the need to deliver blockbuster action, Bird relegates the second half of his movie to a glorified chase movie. From Frank's house of booby traps to the Eiffel Tower and all the way to Tomorrowland before the big finish, we get the equivalent of a souped-up kiddie flick, so much so that when the Paris landmark transforms into an interstellar rocket ship launcher, we are left unimpressed. Conversely, too little time is spent in and around where we actually are spellbound, such that the Tomorrowland we see seems like the build-up for a ride that never took off, which is unfortunately how we end up feeling about the entire film once the answers we are looking for are in essence told to us through clunky exposition delivered in part by Clooney and in part by Laurie.
For a film supposed to move its audience to think bold and stay positive, 'Tomorrowland' comes off feeling just 'meh'. There is excitement in finding out what it is all about, but once we do and that veil of secrecy is lifted, we are left thinking 'so, that's it?' And yet for all its promise, it neither leaves you much inspired nor even enthused; instead, it leaves you wanting, wanting for more adventure, more heart, more wow, and most of all, more of Tomorrowland.
Move over, James Bond. The coolest spy in town is the CIA's Susan
Cooper, a rotound desk agent who looks and walks like Melissa McCarthy
that is given her first field assignment to stop a Bulgarian arms
dealer Rayna (Rose Bryne) from selling a rogue nuclear weapon to the
highest bidding terrorist. While her textbook- suave male counterparts
get to don tuxedos and hide behind cool aliases, Susan gets assigned to
be a divorced mother-of-three from Iowa or a single woman living with
ten cats in her apartment. Clearly, she isn't who you would normally
associate with spy material, but hey that's precisely why writer-
director Paul Feig's send-up of the genre is so, so funny.
The official synopsis will let you know that Susan is called upon to assist the Agency when her assigned field agent, Bradley Fine (Jude Law), is killed in the call of duty by Rayna, the latter also threatening to know (and therefore kill) every single active field agent of the Agency has. So, from her vermin-infested basement where she acts as the eyes and ears for Bradley, Susan volunteers her anonymous self for a "track and report only" mission in Paris, where Rayna is supposed to meet with a notorious middleman named DeLuca (Bobby Cannavale). Needless to say, the enthusiastic former desk jockey steps out of the mission parameters very quickly, and throws herself right into the thick of the action, globetrotting across Europe to Rome and finally to Budapest in order to track down the missing nuke.
As far as spoofs go, 'Spy' is surprisingly well-plotted. Instead of a catfight between McCarthy and Bryne, Feig has them form somewhat of an unlikely friendship somewhere during the middle act, as McCarthy pretends to be a bodyguard hired by Bryne's father to protect the latter. Watching Bryne's snobbish, judgmental Reyna trade verbal barbs at McCarthy's in-your-face, expletive-hurling Susan is a hoot, and their chemistry is even more delightful than discovering that Susan has an "inner rage" that makes her one hell of a mean fighter in the first place. Ditto it is to find out that Statham isn't just rehashing his action hero persona from the countless B-grade movies he's been of late, but instead sending it up by constantly exaggerating the things he has had to endure in the line of duty (like having to cut one arm off and sew it back with the other).
From its James Bond-style title sequence, there is no doubt that Feig has his tongue firmly in his cheek. And yet unlike other send- ups, Feig plays his with a thoroughly straight face, and comes off all the better for it. At no point does it come off looking silly (just look at 'Austin Powers' as a counter-factual); quite the opposite, you might even be inclined at several points to call it brilliant, which only goes to show just how deftly Feig has managed the fine balance between farce and genius. Like his past two female- centric comedies, that genius lies also in Feig's gleeful lack of regard for political correctness, so those who cannot stand the pottiness of 'Bridesmaids' or 'The Heat' should know that this is likely to offend your delicate sensibilities as well.
Yet if there's something these previous Feig-McCarthy collaborations have shown, it is that theirs is truly an inspired comedic pairing. It was Feig who first introduced us to McCarthy's foul-mouthed attitude in 'Bridesmaids', but as 'Identity Thief' and 'Tammy' showed, her trademark shtick can get tiresome and ingratiating very quickly without the right finesse. Feig knows exactly how far and when to push the right buttons, so that McCarthy's outward bravado never gets on your nerves. More than in her previous roles, there is palpable sense of insecurity to McCarthy's fish-out-of-water character here, and the highly gifted comedic actress delivers her most heartfelt performance portraying Susan's anxieties as she realises how way out of her league she is.
In place of the ensemble in 'Bridesmaids' or the complement that Sandra Bullock was in 'The Heat', Feig surrounds McCarthy with a colourful cast of supporting characters. Statham and Law have a whale of a time with their winking performances, the former as a tough-talker and the latter as a debonair spy who isn't so perfect (heck, he accidentally kills the one man with the information he needs when he squeezes the trigger while sneezing). Bryne is gloriously bitchy, and like we said earlier, her scenes with McCarthy snap, crackle and pop. Other no less entertaining additions include Miranda Hart, who plays McCarthy's colleague down in the basement that harbours similar dreams of being out there in the action (her ideal codename being Amber Valentine no less), as well as British actor Peter Serafinowicz, who plays an amorous local CIA handler enlisted to help McCarthy while she is in Rome. Feig juggles all these distinct characters beautifully, while never ever forgetting that this is McCarthy's show through and through.
If you're looking to be tickled silly, we guarantee that 'Spy' will leave you in stitches, but the real ingenuity in this espionage spoof is how it is never in itself silly. Indeed, its humour lies not in putting down its characters or by extension its actors, but rather by subverting our stereotypes of just who and how certain people are supposed to be. It is precisely because we do not expect someone of McCarthy's calibre to be a secret agent that we laugh at how wrong we were and yes, contrary to what you may expect, McCarthy does get to kick ass, a lot of them. The same goes for each one of her other co-stars, whose characters are deliberately meant to be counter-intuitive. But hey, one can say precisely the same about 'Spy', which easily surpasses what Feig and McCarthy have done before. It is funny as hell all right, and it even has a genuinely exciting spy story in itself.
An absurd story about a thirteen year old saving the President of
United States. Checked. Unbelievable action sequences featuring
exploding aircrafts and bulletproof protagonists. Checked. One-
dimensional villains who have no shame uttering cheesy dialogue.
Checked. Throw Samuel L. Jackson into the mix and congratulations, you
have Big Game.
Set in Finland, Big Game begins by introducing the audience to young Oskari (Onni Tommila) and the traditions of his small community. Just a day shy of his thirteenth birthday, Oskari embarks on a coming-of- age tradition that requires him to survive and hunt alone in the frigid wilderness of the Finnish Lapland. The son of a hunter who brought back a bear in the same hunting tradition, Oskari has big shoes to fill in order to prove his worth.
Meanwhile, up in the skies, the aircraft carrying U.S President Moore (Samuel L. Jackson) is coming under missile attacks. Forced into an emergency evacuation pod by trusted Secret Service Agent Morris (Ray Stevenson), Moore finds himself hurtling down into the foreign landscapes of the Finnish wilderness. Fortunately for Moore, his pod is discovered by Oskari, who happens to conveniently be within the vicinity of his landing. Unknown to Moore however, is that Morris has gone rogue and is conspiring with Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus), a psychotic terrorist bent on hunting Moore as game.
There is a difference between films that parody or pay homage to movie genres and films that masquerade itself as one. While one speaks volume of a director's understanding of the genre, the other says much about the director's skills (or lack thereof). Unfortunately for director Jalmari Helander, Big Game belongs to the latter category.
Despite Helander's inclusion of clichés and tropes, Big Game just does not come across as a throwback, parody or homage to the action genre. In fact, Big Game starts off well as an action flick with its premise and characters. As such, oddities in the film can be easily seen as awkward set-ups as long as they fulfill their purposes later in the story. The strange emergency evacuation pod on board the aircraft, for example, can be forgiven as it plays a role in creating the interesting encounter between the President and Oskari.
What is unforgivable, however, is when oddities in plot and logic overpower the main focus of the film. Instead of focusing on Oskari's development and personal growth, Helander decides to, as put across by Kirk Lazarus, "go full retard" and spends his budget on ridiculously exaggerated action sequences. The tonal shift, beginning with Oskari's decision to jump onto a freezer transported by a helicopter, is the "jumping the shark" moment that marks the descend of the film into a ludicrous b-grade movie; so much so that Jackson and Tommila's performances are lost in face of the bizarre comic book violence.
Plot loopholes are also abundant in the film, making the viewing of the film a strange experience. For instance, CIA terrorist expert Hurbert's (Jim Broadbent) involvement in the President's assisnation is not clearly explained; the same with his relationship with Hazar. Felicity Huffman's lack of lines as the bland CIA Director also suggests that the film has been edited and re-edited into a pale translation of the original script.
That being said, Big Game can be enjoyable if you are a connoisseur of B-grade action flicks. With it campy plot and exaggerated action sequences, Big Game is one action-adventure flick that B-grade movie lovers should not miss.
There's no other way to say this 'The Gigolo' is a terrible film.
Its Chinese title may suggest a throwback to the Cat III movies of the 80s and 90s, and at least at the start, that seems to be what writer/ director Au Cheuk-Man was aiming for. Indeed, it would be fine if Au wanted his movie to be no more than a sex farce, but no, halfway through the farce, he decides that he ought to make it some moving drama about how the shy, mild-mannered teenager who overcomes his inhibitions not by choice but by circumstance and becomes the titular 'King of Gigolos' is now tragically prevented from falling in love despite having found his soulmate. The result is one of the most ludicrous plot contrivances we've seen in a while, enough really to make us go limp, if you catch our drift.
The gigolo at the centre of Au's film is Ho Kui-Fong (played by 'Lan Kwai Fong's' Dominic Ho), who relates his 'coming-of-age' story beginning from his high-school days as a basketball player who crosses path with a gangsterly schoolmate that happens to be in love with the same girl. Their disagreement boils over when that same schoolmate tries but fails to frame his fellow player for drug possession and then demands compensation for it in return; expelled from school, and forced to support his family after his mother hurts her back, he goes to work at his aunt's (Elena Kong) club as a janitor, where due to his clean-cut looks, he gets some of her regular clientele excited at seeing 'fresh meat'.
Egged on by his aunt, Fung decides to make his maiden foray into the skin trade but ends up humiliating himself by 'cumming' too early in front of Yoyo (Hazel Tong) and seasoned veteran Chris (TVB star Ronan Pak). That forms his resolve to seek out Absom, who has a reputation for being 'king of the gigolos' and which he eventually does. In one of its most self-aware moments, the filmmakers have cast former Cat III actor Pal Sin as Absom, whose training of Fung includes getting the latter to lick a coin against a mirror so quickly that it stays on the surface and using his fingers against a woman's body as if he were playing the piano. These scenes are arguably the most entertaining bits of the movie, but their pleasures are not new fans of Hong Kong Cat III sex comedies will recognise the similarities with Chapman To's 'Naked Ambition II', where he received similar training under veteran Japanese AV actor Taka Kato.
Whereas To's earlier film was a self-aware parody of the well- established Japanese AV industry, Au's own chronicle of one man's rise to fame (pun intended) is entirely self-serious, so much so that any hint of humour is in fact unintentional. Unfortunately for its sake, it actually is funny, but only because it is jaw-droppingly daft without knowing it. Why should a bunch of thugs out to collect a debt end up hacking their debtor to death, while leaving the debtor's family member right next to him virtually unscathed? What are the odds that one of Fung's regular clients, Michelle (Candy Yuen), turns out to be the stepmother of his girlfriend Chloe (Jeana Ho)? What are the odds that Fung's aunt happens to be in debt as well, such that she would hand over a personal video of Fung at work in her club servicing her clients to Michelle so that the latter can wreck her stepdaughter's relationship with her gigolo?
We get that plot isn't necessarily one of the strong suites of a movie like this, but Au's intention to draw sympathy for Fung and his awkward predicament having 'f**ked' both his girlfriend and her stepmother is simply hilarious. That doesn't even begin to describe the finale, which is so ludicrous it deserves an award of its own. Besides a jealous husband and an equally envious stepmother, there is also a vindictive step-daughter and rape and murder thrown in for good measure. It is utterly absurd to say the very least, just the icing on the cake or to be more accurate, the hovering fly on top of the stinking pile of turd that this maudlin and woefully filmed drama is.
Since character is just as inconsequential here, the acting is just as forgettable; instead, what you're probably interested to know is how much skin each actor or actress shows. Like what you've already heard, Candy Yuen goes topless for a number of sex scenes in the movie, but don't count on the former Miss Hong Kong contestant to set your pulse racing. On the other hand, Jeana Ho is all tease and no show, so those looking for her to follow in the footsteps of Yuen might as well banish that thought. Females however will likely get a kick out of seeing Dominic Ho bare (almost) all for the camera, and it doesn't hurt that he does look great in the role.
And yet, as the saying goes, beauty is just skin deep, so if you're looking for skin and nothing else, then yes you'll get some of that in 'The Gigolo'. Even so, to sit through one and a half hours of tedium just to get to those scenes is hardly worth the while, and it is not even as if the wait can be called foreplay to begin with. Rather than turn this into some melodrama about the plight of a reluctant teenager turned professional gigolo, Au would have done his film and himself a favour by making a straightforward comedy instead of one that ends up being unintentionally so. No wonder then that even Wong Jing himself stepped away from making this farce of a farce after all yes, it really is that bad.
If the first 'Avengers' movie was about building the team, then this
one is about tearing them apart.
If you've read the books, you'll know that Ultron's foremost purpose is to put the Avengers in the ground which in writer-director Joss Whedon's interpretation, becomes a symbol of grand irony. After all, Ultron was Tony's idea of creating an artificial intelligence which could protect mankind and so make the Avengers obsolete, a project which he happened to be working in secret with Bruce and his personal A.I. assistant Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany). Unfortunately for him, Ultron has taken the obsoletion of the Avengers quite literally, and determined for himself that the only way for mankind to survive is for it to be annihilated and thereby given a chance to evolve.
That the Avengers will face Ultron and his army of replicas is a given, but what truly surprises is the twisty character-driven narrative which Whedon weaves to get to that jaw-dropping finale. You would already have heard of the high-profile additions Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), a pair of tightly-knit Eastern European siblings whose powers of speed and mind control respectively lend their reference here as "enhancements" and besides Ultron, the brother-and-sister pair become the most formidable threat to the Avengers, in particular the latter's psychic powers which she uses on Captain America, Black Widow and Thor to trigger memories of their past and face their personal demons.
While their visions leave them distracted and unsettled, the rest of the team are also forced to confront their own fears. Tony's hubris, once the driving force of his pioneering spirit, could very well be the end of the Avengers and the destruction of everything he's tried to build. Bruce loathes his alter-ego, but recognises that his powers are still a valuable addition to the team, especially in protecting Black Widow, with whom he shares a deepening romantic interest hinted at in the last movie. And freed from the shackles of Loki's spell, Hawkeye is reminded of his mortality as one with no special powers or metal suit other than being an excellent archer, beautifully portrayed in a sojourn at the halfway mark that he makes to his 'safe house' to visit his wife and kids along with the rest of his teammates to recuperate and re-group.
It is no small feat juggling so many characters in the same movie, and yet again, Whedon has pulled it off stunningly. Even though each is part of a larger team, no one fades into it; instead, Whedon lets us get to know each and every one of the Avengers intimately, so much so that you won't feel that you know them any less than you would if they each had their own standalone movie. And out of that character emphasis comes some lovely human moments that make this more soulful and poignant than its predecessor how Black Widow coaxes the Hulk back into human form, that Hawkeye is an All- American family man when not on superhero duty, why Ultron is really Tony's darkest side in the flesh (or metal) gone amok, and fundamentally the burdens that each one of our superheroes carry as a consequence of their powers.
Besides Ultron, Whedon refuses to define any of the characters as "good" or "bad"; rather, he identifies and illustrates their drives and impulses whether is it Tony's phobia or Captain America's old- fashioned sense of duty or even Ultron's Oedipal grudge and uses that to propel the story forward. This is ultimately how the team falls apart, going from the joviality of Thor's favourite party trick (otherwise known as "who is fit to lift the hammer") at the start to the infighting later on over Tony's plan to create yet another superior A.I. to defeat Ultron which ends up in the birth of the red-faced android named Vision (Bettany in the flesh). It is also how Whedon plots the reconciliation of the Avengers with their apparent arch-nemeses Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, no doubt laying the foundation for the next phase of the Avengers programme and the next two-parter instalment due three years later.
Only when it comes to matching the sheer jaw-dropping spectacle of its predecessor does this sequel become a victim of its own success. Despite hopscotching across the globe from Europe to Africa to Asia and back (culminating in the fictional East European country of Sokovia where it started), Whedon never quite achieves the same feeling of 'wow' that we had watching Loki take out S.H.I.E.L.D's airborne headquarters or unleash hell from the sky onto New York City. Whedon manage to replicate that feeling of astoundment in the much- anticipated Hulk-versus-Hulkbuster sequence, but the next to follow set in and around downtown Seoul is a major disappointment for blurry CGI and bad continuity. And though he tries to replicate the exhilaration watching the whole Avengers fighting together as an entire team, Whedon doesn't quite get our hearts leaping during the final standoff against hordes of replica Ultrons.
If the finale lacks the emotional payoff of the first movie, that's also because Whedon had set himself up with a near impossible task in the first place. That probably explains why the 'Age of Ultron' is at its core a very different movie from the first 'Avengers', not just because of how our superheroes evolve in the face of imminent destruction precipitated by one of their own but also because of the complex psychological themes that Whedon explores here. His ambition is certainly admirable, but it is inevitable that those looking for the same straightforward thrills as its predecessor will be at least slightly disappointed. That said, this is still an outstanding feat by any measure, a riveting blend of intimate character moments and grand action spectacle that remains quite simply, Marvel-lous.
Trust the Koreans to bring the words melodrama and blockbuster into the
same motion picture. Indeed, JK Youn's latest film after his
record-breaking special effects extravaganza 'Haeundae' sees him tell a
family drama over sixty years that spans both the Korean War in the
1950s, the Gastarbeiter programme in mid-60s Germany, the Vietnam War
in the 1970s as well as many other momentous periods etched in the
psyche of his country's people and each one of these episodes serves
as a 'blockbuster' in itself not just in spectacle but emotion. It is
no wonder that the film has since gone on to make its own history,
becoming the second most-watched film in Korean cinema.
Co-written by Youn and Park Soo-jin, the film opens in the present day with Deok-Su (Hwang Jung-min), his wife Yeong-ja (Kim Yun-jin) and his best friend Dal-goo (Oh Dal-su) who live in the coastal city of Busan, where Deok-su and his family run a small store in the city's Gukje (International) Market. On a walk with his youngest granddaughter Seo-yeon through the Market, Deok-Su recalls an eventful yet tumultuous life journey that starts in the early 1950s. Then a young boy who was one of the hundreds of refugees fleeing the Korean War, Deok-Su loses grip of his younger sister Mak-sun and is separated from his father, who disembarks to look for Mak-sun, as they try to board the SS Meredith Victory, an American cargo freighter that evacuated 14,000 refugees in Hungnam, North Korea.
Arriving in Busan, Deok-soo is looked after by his father's eldest sister but is forced to leave school and support the family by working as a shoe shiner. The rest of the movie unfolds as a succession of perils as he strives to support his family as a young man first, on Dal-gu's suggestion, he signs up with the inter- government Gastarbeiter scheme and is sent to work in the coal mines of West Germany, where he not only survives a mine disaster but also meets his wife-to-be Yeong-ja who was studying to be a nurse; then, he signs up for a non-military position in Vietnam with Dal-gu, where he narrowly escapes the clutches of the invading Viet Cong in Saigon but helps Dal-gu find a wife (Nguyễn Mai Chi) in a South Vietnamese villager that they help evacuate.
True to the template of a blockbuster, Youn's film is constructed around a few major setpieces, each one of them deftly executed with both scope and intimacy so we can appreciate the immensity of the historical chapter as well as what it meant for our lead protagonist Deok-su and to a lesser but no less significant extent his family members and Dal-gu. It is therefore no surprise that Youn chooses as his finale the reunion of thousands of families in a live KBS- televised event back in 1983 including that of Deok-su, who after three decades is finally reunited with his father and sister. Notwithstanding the fact that it is a re-enactment, Youn stages the climax with emotional aplomb; and by that, we mean you better be prepared for plenty of hugs, tears and kisses, perhaps even some of your own in a vicarious way.
Like the best Korean tearjerkers, Youn's film makes no apologies for being unabashedly sentimental, but there is no denying that it is poignant enough to move you to tears. As with his previous movies, Youn demonstrates a firm grasp of mise-en-scene, so even though his core audience will likely have no difficulty identifying with his protagonist's struggles, he stages each one of the four major events with startling realism and, by doing so, pulls you into the thick of history. But most like 'Haeundae', Youn shows a knack for mining human drama potently, ensuring that his key sequences connect not just on a visual level but also on a deeply emotional one.
The accomplishment certainly isn't Youn's alone; in fact, Hwang deserves much praise for doing the heavy lifting as the emotional anchor of the film. It is with his character that we laugh, cry and rejoice with, and Hwang's performance is sincere, heartfelt and affecting. It is even more impressive that he manages to carry the character from his twenties into his twilight years, and with a roster from gangland drama 'New World' to war comedy 'Battlefield Heroes' shows yet again why he is one of the most versatile actors in the industry now. It also helps that he has such an effortless chemistry with Oh, the duo's friendship through the years one of the most endearing relationships in the film.
To fault 'Ode to my Father' for being emotionally manipulative is an understatement; that said, this is melodrama at its finest, coupled with some awe-inspiring scenes of spectacle, which is intended through and through for you to weep along with it. But in the midst of that, Youn delivers a compelling feature that taps respectfully into the wounded Korean psyche of the 1950s to the 1990s from key upheavals that now form the very fabric of their society. There is no doubt why it has been so successful at home, and for everyone else, this is a still an epic blockbuster melodrama which resonates with its universal themes of love, reconciliation and survival.
Every inch of 'Skin Trade' feels like a B-movie, but the good thing is
that it doesn't try to pretend to be more. A passion project of Dolph
Lundgren who started work on its script close to eight years ago, it
knows exactly what buttons to push to get its core audience satisfied
even as it tries to shed light onto a matter close to his heart, i.e.
that of human trafficking. So if you're expecting a very angry Lundgren
on a revenge rampage, or a mano-a-mano between Lundgren and Tony Jaa,
or a similar one-on-one between Tony Jaa and Michael Jai White, we can
reassure you that you won't be disappointed.
A brief prologue establishes the mechanics of Viktor Dragovic's (Ron Perlman) despicable business under the guise of offering them employment, the former Serbian national's fourth son Janko (Leo Rano) and his accomplices lure gullible village girls from Thailand, Cambodia and Laos to leave their homes and journey to the city, where they are subsequently drugged and shipped to America and Europe to be sold as sex slaves. Lundgren's Newark police detective Nick Cassidy is tracking Viktor's latest shipment in order to apprehend him and his sons, while Jaa plays a Thai police officer Tony who is onto the same case from further down the food chain.
Their paths cross after Viktor is let loose upon diplomatic pressure and skips town, seeking refuge in a corrupt general's mansion near the Cambodian border. Unfortunately for Nick, Viktor's sons manage to get to his family before fleeing town, so after regaining consciousness from an RPG strike on his house, Nick decides to take his quest for revenge to Viktor. Thanks to Michael Jai White's rogue government agent Reed, Nick is framed for the murder of Tony's partner soon after setting foot on Royal Thai soil. Of course, who's good and who's bad will become clear quite quickly, but Lundgren and his co-writers have specifically engineered enough twists and turns precisely to fulfil their audience's expectations to see each one of the marquee action stars have a go at the other.
Much of the heavy lifting here is done by Jaa, whose speed and agility has not dimmed one bit since his 'Tom Yum Goong' and 'Ong Bak' days. While his Hollywood debut in 'Fast and Furious 7' may have been overlooked because of the crowded ensemble, Jaa's lead turn here will definitely not go unnoticed. His one-on-one with Lundgren in an abandoned warehouse is the film's halfway high-water mark, pitting a lean mean warrior against a much hulkier opponent though there is no question in our minds just who is the one that is the better fighter.
It is no wonder then that Jaa is the one chosen to take on Jai White, the latter a much worthier opponent than Lundgren skilled in the art of kickboxing not unlike Jean Claude Van-Damme in his heydays. The fight between them is brutal and ferocious, choreographed specifically to illustrate the strengths of either actor, and next to the noisy and overblown finale at a remote airstrip that it precedes, is easily the climax that the film deserves to be remembered for. Indeed, while a sizeable amount of the limited budget on which the film is made for has been reserved for explosions and other fireballs, it is the raw thrill of seeing these natural born fighters go at each other knuckle-to-knuckle that is where its charm lies.
And in that regard, Lundgren deserves more credit than what may be apparent. It is no doubt thanks to Lundgren that we get to see Jaa in such a significant capacity not only in a movie that respects the actor's Oriental roots but also one that gives him a role with both the breadth and depth for Jaa to showcase his abilities as an actor and as an action star. It is probably also thanks to Lundgren that the likes of Jai White, Ron Perlman, Peter Weller and Cary- Hiroyuki Tagawa have come together in the same film, a combination that is any self-professed B-action movie fan's wet dream. And it is Lundgren who manages to pull a movie with so many potential clichés together in a respectable fashion as the latter scenes demonstrate, its director Ekachai Uekrongtham has a long way to go in learning how to stage a proper action sequence.
Like we said at the beginning, 'Skin Trade' doesn't pretend to be more than what it is and much as there is a social message in here, it never tries to drive it too hard. Indeed, it is precisely by embracing its B-movie roots that it truly delivers, not just in the fact that it makes no compromises in keeping its action hard- hitting but also by ensuring that its actors are right up there without any doubles performing each and every one of the stunts. More than sex, that is the skin trade which truly matters, and which we suspect its audience will be more than happy to partake in.
Seeing as how Singaporeans had reacted to a Filipino group's plans to
celebrate Philippine Independence Day at Ngee Ann City last year,
'Unlucky Plaza' seems to have struck with eerie prescience at the
extent of our xenophobia, especially as it attempts to portray the
tension between locals and foreigners through the lens of a Filipino
permanent resident in Singapore struggling to make ends meet.
At the heart of writer-director Ken Kwek's darkly comic crime caper is Onassis Hernandez (Epy Quizon), a single father on the brink of financial ruin after the head cook at his restaurant in Lucky Plaza added 'shit' into the chicken adobo and landed six patrons in hospital with salmonella poisoning. As a result, Onassis is hounded by his unsympathetic lady landlord (Pam Oei) for the rent he owes and cannot even afford to ensure that his ten-year-old son Popoy (Christian Wong) has Fruit Loops for breakfast every morning.
On the ostensible other end of the 'wealth' spectrum is smarmy property guru cum motivational speaker Sky (Adrian Pang), a former actor who went by the name of Terence Chia (yes, the similarity with real-life MediaCorp actor Terence Cao is intentional and duly noted) that now lives in a sprawling three-storey bungalow in Stevens Road and drives a Porsche. But, as we quickly learn, Sky is asset-rich and cash-poor, unable to pay off the $400,000 in debt he chalked up with a loan shark. That 'shark' has since been taken over by a PRC syndicate, whose Number 3 man named Xiao Xiong (Guo Liang), literally translated as 'Baby Bear', has come to collect.
Completing the trio of narratives whose paths intersect midway into the story is Sky's unhappy wife Michelle (Judee Tan), who is constantly harangued by her husband to sell her parents' Tiong Bahru flat so that he can pay off his debt. For solace, she starts an affair with her Christian pastor Tong Wen (Shane Mardjuki), whom she eventually plots to run away with to the island paradise of Gili Meno.
Oh yes, Kwek certainly hasn't lost his edge for controversy, the former ST journalist turned scriptwriter of 'The Blue Mansion' who made his directorial debut in 2012 with the banned-then-unbanned- but-with- snips 'Sex.Violence.Family.Values' short and who is making his first feature-length film here. In the first hour, Kwek builds three interesting character studies around Onassis, Sky and Michelle, while serving up critique on some of the most prominent current social issues such as property scams, materialism, church improprieties and heightened nationalism.
And to some extent, Kwek makes good on his own promise in the latter half of the film, where an intersecting chain of events over the course of a single day lead Onassis to hold Sky, Michelle, Tong Wen and Xiao Xiong hostage. Onassis' demands? To see his son and to have a helicopter ready so he can fly himself and Popoy out. As the Malay police officer Azman (Osman Sulaiman) in charge of the situation quickly remarks and which Sky echoes later on, this isn't Hollywood - and it is clear that Kwek intends for the turn of events to be read as satire, not to be taken entirely at face value.
Alas, Kwek fumbles at trying to remain tonally consistent throughout the supposedly tense last hour. On one hand, he aims to amplify the local-versus-foreigner divide by positing that the former would respond by demonstrating with placards reading 'Singapore for Singaporeans' outside the scene of the crisis and tearing down shops that belong to the latter, but hey any Singaporean will tell you how unlikely that is given our strict laws against public assembly. On the other, he tries to find poignancy in each one of his flawed characters' own personal struggles, whether is it to come to terms with their selfishness, infidelity, or hypocrisy. Yet Kwek never quite finds the right balance to accomplish both, so much so that the two end up pulling the film in opposite directions.
At close to two hours, Kwek also cannot quite keep the same tight grip over the narrative. Despite occasional flashes of violence (including a chopped up hand), Kwek fails to replicate the white- knuckle suspense to be expected of any a hostage thriller. You'll find yourself questioning just how much of a crisis it even is when all Onassis has to hold his hostages at bay is a huge cleaver he calls 'Ah Tiong' that was passed down from generation to generation of owner of his Filipino restaurant. In fact, Kwek undermines what visceral thrills his audience might have of watching a hostage drama depicted in Singapore by a prologue at the very beginning, which sees Onassis, Sky and Michelle very much alive and healthy in a TV studio being interviewed by talk show host Anita Kapoor one year after the supposedly harrowing events.
To his credit, Kwek has assembled a great cast for his film. Award- winning Filipino actor Quizon impresses with a restrained and heartfelt portrayal of a working-class man driven to desperation. Pang brings unexpected nuance to a character which we would love to hate. Next to Quizon and Pang, Tan's slightly hollow performance doesn't register as much at the start, but becomes more subtle as she is confronted with the errors of her adulterous ways.
But for all its flaws, 'Unlucky Plaza' is uncharacteristically Singaporean. Yes, its protagonist may be Filipino, but its topics and themes are rooted deeply in our milieu, and with his latest, Kwek has probably cemented himself as one of our most iconoclast filmmakers. Even though Kwek doesn't match his ambition and derring- do with the skill to deliver an equally empathetic film, this mix of thriller and satire still is probably one of the most intriguing local films you'll see this year.
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